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Charlotte Chefs Draw Inspiration From Hip-Hop for Pop-Ups

The themed-dinner trend rides strong into fall

plate of food Austin Brooks

Themed dinners in Charlotte, North Carolina, once inconsistent, stutter-stop anomalies supported primarily by friends of young chefs, have become the social events of the season. Celebrated chefs and intimate settings lend an air of exclusivity to the affairs, which sell out quickly and dominate social media timelines for days after. This summer saw dozens of such events, and more are scheduled as fall approaches. From hip-hop heads to Caribbean history buffs, there’s something on the menu for everyone.

Chef Shelton Starks and his Serving the Culture collective focus on musically themed feasts. The 10 chefs, among them James Beard nominees Jamie Barnes and Greg Williams; Marketa Lucas, who manages the kitchen at Angeline’s in Uptown; and Whitney Thompson of 5 Church, have found their muse in classic ‘90s hip-hop. Following a Wu-Tang Clan-inspired dinner in June, they return this month, on September 28, with the SpottieOttieDopalicious Dinner, inspired by iconic Southern rappers Outkast. Like the duo, this eight-course, four-cocktail menu takes seemingly opposing elements and melds them together into a sum greater than its parts.

“It’s letting music influence palates in a way I haven’t seen before,” Starks said. “We’re matching flavors with songs and giving diners the full experience of the thought process behind each dish.”

Barnes chose “Crumblin’ Herb” off the Atlanta group’s debut album as his inspiration for the dessert course, a crumbled basil chiffon cake with rosemary-laced cookies.

“I wanted to create a contrast similar to Andre 3000 and Big Boi. The cake element correlates to Big: It’s fluffy, sweet and straightforward, while the lace cookie is a little more complex and advances the flavors, like 3000,” Barnes said. “True to the nature of the song, I’m adding a smoky element, with a smoked peach puree that also drives home that Georgia reference.” Tickets found here.

Austin Brooks

The First Supper, another musically themed event, takes place October 1 at Camp Northend and features a group of all-female chefs paying homage to the women of rap. Adjoa Courtney, the force behind vegan pop-up series Cooking with Joya and author of new cookbook The Unicorn Chef, will draw inspiration from Erykah Badu. Shakayla Taylor of The Power Plate pulls from Lauryn Hill’s catalogue; Eat Your Bliss’s Jasiatic Anderson taps her inner Salt ‘n’ Pepa; and Aminata Mitchell of Cafe International takes a cue from Queen Latifah to compose her offering. Kaylan Frasier of Good Food Made Better starts the party off in the spirit of North Carolina emcee Rapsody with a hot appetizer showcasing her speciality, CBD- and plant-based infusions. For the finale, 14-year-old culinary upstart Kosi Archie will channel Cardi B. for a sweet finish.

“It was important to include a variety of chefs, some who have a dedicated following and others who are just emerging, to provide them an opportunity to step out and grow,” said organizer DaVita Galloway.

DJ SPK will provide complementary sounds for the evening and guests are asked to dress to impress by referencing their favorite woman rapper, with a prize for whomever does it best. Tickets found here.

Austin Brooks

Other dinners take a more political bent. Dine Like You Give A Damn, held September 19, was the latest edition of the monthly multi-course vegan dinners at 7th Street Market. It saw close to 40 diners eager to experience decolonized Caribbean food. Chef Brandon Ruiz spearheaded the event, supported by Julio Montero of OMG Alchemy and Julia Simon of Nourish Charlotte, with part of the proceeds going to his Herbal Accessibility Project.

“Colonization has affected food, culture, the way we talk, everything,” said Ruiz. “And because of the role of the Caribbean in the building of [European] empires, there’s just so much there: African, Spanish, Indigenous and Asian elements. It’s a really interesting dynamic.”

Ruiz decolonizes ingredients by removing as much abuse and unhealthy practices from the food supply and preparation process as possible. This includes nixing over-reliance on bad fats and processed sugars as well as a careful approach to ingredients that have roots in indigenous diets but through commoditization are now largely out of reach for the original cultivators.

“Food originates, then ... through trade and human travel as it makes its way into the Western world, prices go up,” Ruiz explained. “It just takes one scientist to call it healthy, or one top chef to make it hot. I saw yucca flour on sale, $13 for half a pound. Back in Puerto Rico that was poor farmers’ food.”

The dinner’s highlights included sweet and salted plantains, callaloo, and a version of rondón stew served with rice and beans wrapped in banana leaf. Ruiz introduced each plate by sharing the food’s historical context and indigenous healing uses.

“Telling the story is important,” he said. “There are some colonial influences that remain but the way we interact with the food can make it less harmful and spotlight these indigenous and African ingredients. To put it all together in a meal that represents the resistance and resilience of people who maintain their culture in the face of colonial intrusion is very important.”